La Bohème is stupidly famous because who doesn’t like an opera about garrets and poets and coughing? It is pronounced “Lah Boe-EM” and means “Bohemia.”
Rodolfo, Colline and Marcello are friends. Rodolfo is a poet, Colline a philosopher and Marcello a painter. They are a trifecta of monetary disfunction. The opera opens on Rodolfo, burning pages of his writing to keep warm. Schaunard, their musician friend, arrives saying he’s landed work. They all go out on the town with promises from Rodolfo to join them.
Mimi arrives, saying her candle has “blown out.” Rodolfo lights her candle (not a euphemism, yet) and sends her on her way but it “blows out” again and then she “drops her key” and there’s some groping in the dark and singing and lo and behold the next thing you know they’re in love.
They leave to go join the others and Rodolfo buys her a bonnet which she will probably have to burn later to keep warm.
At the cafe, Marcello’s ex, Musetta, arrives with her sugardaddy, Alcindoro. Musetta sends Alcindoro off on some errand and they all have a splendid time and leave him with the bill.
In act 3 Mimi confides in Marcello that she wants to leave Rodolfo because he is so horribly jealous. Shortly after, Rodolfo talks about dumping Mimi because she’s so fickle and flirty and we’re all “wha…? When was she fickle and flirty? She hasn’t done anything but cough.” This is because there was an act 2.5 and we missed it. In act 2.5, the librettist wrote a scene where Musetta introduces Mimi to a Viscount and Mimi is indeed fickle and flirty. Who can blame her? She’s broke and dying and Rodolfo is kind of whiney. The scene didn’t make the cut and no one bothered to proofread the rest of the libretto.
Rodolfo then admits that the real reason he wants to leave Mimi is that she is sick and probably dying and he is too poor to take care of her and is probably, in fact, making her sicker with his poetry. She overhears this and rushes to Rodolfo. They decide to stay together until spring or until one of them gets a paying gig, whichever comes first. Spoiler: it’s spring.
Later, the three friends are doing whatever it is they do in their garret when Musetta rushes in and tells them Mimi is dying. They all run around like chickens, trying to help, but she dies anyway.
Again with the spoilers. Sorry.
I hesitate to add that La Bohème was the basis for Jonathan Larson’s Rent.